Episodia 2.10: Writing About Other People

Photo by Josef Steufer

Photo by Josef Steufer

I spent the past few years writing a memoir about a secret I kept throughout my adolescence, and the book is set to debut next Tuesday. When I was ten years old, a beloved piano teacher in my small hometown was accused of sexually assaulting his young female students. Much of the town couldn’t believe that a pillar of our community would commit such a crime, and many of the adults I knew as a child threw their lots in with him instead of the girls who dared tell the truth about what he’d done. As you might imagine, this caused me and many of my girlhood friends a swell of hurt we buried deep in our hearts—both those who spoke out against the piano teacher, and those who, like me, did not.

Mine is a story about a perpetrator, his victims, and a town full of people who chose sides. All of them are portrayed in the memoir, and most of them are still living. As I wrote the book, I felt the weight of portraying flesh-and-blood humans on the page. I wanted to get it right. I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to uphold their dignity, when appropriate. And I often wondered—is that even possible?

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Episodia 2.9: I’m Not a Writer, I Just Play One on TV

PersonaI’ve spent the past few weeks preparing for the publication of my first book this fall, and a key ingredient of this process is the “public” part. I’ve been updating my website, beefing up my social media presence, and reaching out to people to spread the word about the book I believe in so passionately.

On good days, I see that I might be evolving into a more potent version of myself—a writer who is able to talk about her own work articulately, one who can move seamlessly between her public and private worlds. On tougher days, the whole thing can feel fake, like I’ve been hired to portray myself in some sitcom or drama loosely based on my life. Despite the best intentions, opportunities for fraudulence arise at every turn. Can I make myself look stronger, wiser, funnier if I try hard enough?

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Episodia 2.8: Scott Cheshire & True Detective

CheshireIn his remarkable debut novel High as the Horses’ Bridles, Scott Cheshire tackles the loaded subject of faith and religious fanaticism in America with the same élan, sophistication, and depth found in HBO’s neo-noir series True Detective. I had the pleasure of asking Cheshire about the parallels between his novel and the hit show. Read on to see how these two masterpieces collide, intertwine, and ultimately shed light on each other.

Q. Your narrator Josiah Laudermilk and Detective Rustin Cohle share a peculiar kinship. Both men dream dreams and have visions. Both are storytellers and armchair philosophers. Both are skeptics when it comes to faith and religion. And both–one a homicide detective and the other a former preacher–are looking for the missing pieces that will make their narratives whole. What do you think these two might talk about, were they to meet?

Scott: You know, I think they’d get along. Although I think while Josie would really enjoy Cohle’s company, Cohle might find Josie a bit unstable. Imagine that! Cohle calling somebody unstable. But I mean not as stable with regard to a particular world perspective (I’m not talking about booze or substance abuse, here, or Cohle’s instinct for violence).  Cohle’s take on the world is actually quite stable, even dogmatic, at times, which is one of things I like most about him. He knows who he is.

In fact, he thinks he knows who you are, too. He’s like Nietzsche crossed with “Bud” White (played by Russell Crowe in the film version of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential). God is dead and he’s going to find the motherfuc*er who killed him. Josie, on the other hand, knows very little. He’s lost. He’s trying embrace and divorce himself from his own past at the very same time. Which is exactly what Cohle’s trying to do, come to think of it. Maybe they’d talk about that. They would try and be “present” together, and talk. Drunkenly.

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Episodia 2.7: Gilmore Girls & The From-Aways

HauserCJ Hauser’s evocative debut novel The From-Aways will take you deep inside small-town New England, a budding friendship, and troubled family ties. It’s a whip-smart and heartfelt book. It also shares some common ground with the fan-favorite television series Gilmore Girls, and below CJ and I discuss the show, as well as her novel, the nuances of small town life, and the myth of belonging.

Q. Both The From-Aways and Gilmore Girls explore the breadth of female relationships. How did you decide to place Leah and Quinn’s new friendship at the heart of the novel?

A. The true story? I started writing the book with just Leah. Then, in a sulky fit, I threw it out because it wasn’t good enough. I started the book over, with Quinn. In a sulky fit I threw that out because it wasn’t good enough either. Then I poured myself a whiskey even though it was four in the afternoon and I sulked some more. When my best friend and roommate came home from work she retrieved both chapters from the trashcan and read them. Do you realize, she said, that you should write about both of these women? I think they would be friends.

And she was right. I realized that neither of the women could tell this whole story on her own. Each needed to push the other into making different, difficult decisions. They made each other better because they were these two different halves of a pair, and I like to think that made the book better, too.Continue Reading

Episodia 2.6: TV-Based Beach Reads

24 3Ah, summer. That sweltry time of year when some of our favorite television shows go on hiatus and we head outdoors for lots of sun, swimming, and—if you’re like me—lots of literature. I love the feeling of reading poolside on a sunny afternoon, and the right book can transform a humdrum day into a magical one.

So here’s a list of summer reading recommendations based on your favorite television shows. There’s something here for everyone—the literary fiction lover, the fantasy fan, the romance reader, and perhaps even something that will inspire the staunchest, TV-loving couch potato among us to head for the shore with a book in hand.

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Episodia 2.5: The Third Heat

30 RockLast week I received an email from a dear student with a serious case of writer’s block. She’s been writing a screenplay for the last four years, and her work is almost finished. To her despair, however, she recently discovered that her very project (idea, locale, plot, and timeframe, all) was made into a film about to be released next month.

I’m sure you can feel her frustration and disappointment, just as I did. Many of us artists have found ourselves in similar situations. We finally uncover a great idea. We get to work. We doubt, yet we keep writing in spite of those doubts. We push ourselves. We cancel plans so we can finish what we started. Then we discover something in the market that appears to be a carbon copy of what we once felt was entirely personal to us. Everything comes to a stop, and we don’t know how or if we can continue.

I wanted to say something—anything—to help my student get back to work. But what can one say to a grieving artist? Practical advice often proves useless. This idea that there’s “nothing new under the sun,” as King Solomon once put it, can pose a real problem for writers. As I pondered this challenge, I found myself thinking about the third heat.

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Episodia 2.4: Lessons in Creativity from “Mad Men”

Don DraperTonight the seventh and final season of “Mad Men” premieres on AMC. I’ve loved this show and the slow, magnetic swirl of 1960s Manhattan ever since the episode “Babylon” aired in 2007. The entire series might be considered in terms of the opening credits we’ve all grown familiar with: a man in a suit-silhouette of black and white falls through the sky against a backdrop of skyscrapers and advertising billboards.

Week after week, “Mad Men” sifts through the detritus of a life spent in advertising—the ghostly cigarettes, empty decanters, door-jamb nooses, and the insistent chatter of a typewriter that soothes a desperate heart. And though most writers will never be flown west to meet with Sunkist or to broker a deal for a television spot, I still find many parallels between literature and advertising, two artistic endeavors in which creative work sometimes turns a profit. So what might writers learn from this show, its characters, and its creator?

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Episodia 2.3: Why Writers Need Jury Duty

The WireA while back, when I was living near Newark, I got a summons for jury duty. As soon as I saw the thin slip of paper that labeled me as “juror x,” I started to brainstorm how I might be able to get out of it. I was more useful at work, I reasoned, and I didn’t want to leave my boss and co-workers to pick up my slack. What difference could I make in our broken judicial system, anyway?

Around this time, much of America was watching HBO as “The Wire” pulled back the curtain on the country’s legal and law enforcement empires. No longer was there the simple “Law & Order” dividing line between good and evil.  Instead, the show—created by a former crime reporter—gave us reality. There was no good or bad “side,” per se. There was personal interest, inequality, and—every once in a while—some attempt at justice, whether it was in the courtroom or on the streets of Baltimore.

But I didn’t have time for “The Wire,” or much else, for that matter. I was a young woman with dispersed affections. I lived in New Jersey, worked in Connecticut, and almost everyone else I knew lived in my hometown in Pennsylvania. I had a long commute, a long-distance boyfriend, a demanding job, and student loans up to my ears. I wanted to be a writer but didn’t have the guts or the energy to try.  I was twenty-three, tired, and naïve.

These were just a few of the reasons I showed up for my summons, hoping I wouldn’t get selected. When the judge entered the courtroom and said the trial would likely last three weeks, we let out a collective groan. But what he said next changed the atmosphere in the room. The trial we’d been selected for wasn’t just any case. It was a murder case, an attempted murder case, and an aggravated assault case. The defendant entered, no older than I was, a young man who had been awaiting trial for two years. This was important, it was urgent, and it had the right to demand all of my attention.

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Episodia 2.2: Writing About Our Secrets

Olivia PopeLast weekend, I spent an evening in the woods with a group of strangers in search of owls. It was a cold, eventless quest, punctuated by the unanswered hooting of our guide and the sporadic cry of distant foxes. Every ten minutes, the guide would call out with a soft “oo—loo—oo,” and our group would fall silent as we waited for a response. When none came, we’d forge deeper into the woods, the guide would call out, and we’d fall silent again.

It went on like this for over an hour, until the youngest in our group, a girl of maybe seven years old, broke the silence.

“I have a secret,” she whispered to her mother as we all stood together in the dark. The rest of us couldn’t help but lean in.

“I have to pee,” she said.

It was funny and sweet and perfect, one of the highlights of an otherwise barren night. The owls were there, the guide assured us. Sometimes they just didn’t want us to know.

Most of the time, our secrets live inside of us like dormant owls. Once in a while, a secret wakes up, calls out, and beckons a response. In truth, sometimes secrets are better left to our diaries. But what if a writer chooses to share those secrets with her audience, whether in poetry, fiction, or memoir? Is there value in divulging them beyond the initial rush of self-expression?

I say yes. Whether in real life or in fiction, secrets are unfinished elements of any story. Or, as lawyer and ultimate problem-solver Olivia Pope from ABC’s “Scandal” would say, “dirty little secrets always come out.” We writers have the gift and the burden of alchemy when it comes to secrets. In our hands, they can become click bait, fodder for tabloids, or agents of thoughtful exploration.

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Episodia 2.1: When Art Goes Public

Louie and David LettermanI like to be alone when I write. When I’m deep into a project, I don’t answer the phone, I don’t respond to emails, and on the most intense days, I don’t even venture outside. Part of what appeals to me about the writer’s life is this partnership with solitude. I crave the intense focus that an empty house and an unfinished project promise. So it came as a surprise when a huge wave of loneliness swept over me while my first book was on submission. Where did it come from?

Nothing will make you question all your life choices (and your artistic ones) like submitting your creative work for review. It’s a way of announcing to the world that you actually have the guts to try this whole writing thing, for real, while some version of Eminem’s “You only get ONE shot” plays on repeat in the back of your mind. And for all the camaraderie that exists out there, writers don’t talk about this process much. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to complain about submitting while dear friends are working diligently to finish their drafts, or maybe we’re afraid of making our failures public. Either way, when we most need to talk through our fears with someone, we find ourselves alone.

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